Facebook games are an unsustainable business strategy, reckons mobile social producer Tami Baribeau

Facebook games are an unsustainable business strategy, reckons mobile social producer Tami Baribeau
Tami Baribeau has worked on social games at Metaplace, Playdom, PopCap Games and The Playforge. She also writes about games for The Border House and Games.com blog. Her opinions do not represent the views of her present or past employers.

I've been either making or playing social games for years now, so I'm no stranger to the nuances and ins and outs of social game design, marketing and business. I play these games constantly, fighting a never-ending battle to stay on top of the latest innovations in the design and platform utilisation.

In Facebookland, I've been noticing a sad trend in the way businesses are operated in terms of title churn. Facebook games are simply not sustainable.

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In the early days, these games started out as clickfests built in php designed to exploit the viral nature of Facebook. Then Flash became the standard and the FarmVille-era of social games were flourishing.

Fast forward one year and the barrier for entry into the Facebook game space becomes more difficult, as higher production values reign supreme and everyone fights against the powerhouse that is a Zynga near-monopoly.

Facebook ads become an incredibly expensive acquisition channel, Facebook makes all-but-devastating changes to viral architecture and implements a mandated official currency that takes a deep cut of developer revenue. It's no longer easy for the little guys to rise to the top.

From the template

Facebook games are designed to burst out of the gate at release, climb to their peak within a month or two, then start their slow decline until they are either put on ice or sunsetted. They require an amazing amount of live support, with content releases multiple times a week to give the whales new items to buy. Creative game design is often shelved in favor of shorter-term wins that give visible boosts to the game's core metrics.

Game teams are managed by product managers in Excel who determine feature priorities using carefully calculated forecasting. Marketing budgets are front loaded to make sure the new game reaches the highest peak possible before the decline starts and it becomes costly and challenging to maintain DAU.

Facebook games are designed with a cookie cutter set of features that any respectable developer would be a fool to disregard. Every game has neighbors, and gifting, and daily bonuses, and mystery boxes, and viral buildables, and collections, and visiting, and achievements, and energy mechanics, and shiny pieces of loot that fly out on the screen and require a tap to collect.

These games have the same HUDs, the same toolbars, the same questing system, the same newbie tutorial experiences. If you don't learn from each other, you're foolish. And of course, the common rule that everyone talks about is how if it's in a Zynga game that must mean that it's been sufficiently A/B tested and is therefore worth stealing as a best practice.

Keep it simple, stupid

There are all sorts of limitations on what you can't do if you make a Facebook game. Don't require a browser plug-in, because Flash reigns supreme. Don't make your game too complex, because this new breed of social game player can't handle deep game mechanics. Don't include too much story, because the more text you have the less likely someone will read it. And god forbid you try to make a synchronous multiplayer game, that's just blasphemy.

I've said all this myself, I've been there. I know that you have to draw these lines if you want to be successful in the Facebook space. That's what works. We've tested the living hell out of these games and these mechanics, and we've landed on the perfectly optimised core feature set. The problem is, there is only so much room for games with this feature set.

We've seen Zynga maintaining a traffic leadership of over four times higher than the next developer in line (EA). We've seen some impressive acquisitions, including four that I took part in (PopCap buying ZipZapPlay, EA buying PopCap, Playdom buying Metaplace, Disney buying Playdom).

We've seen some big IP try and fail on Facebook (The Oregon Trail), and some major IP showing massive success (The Sims Social). And I've watched many games shut down in the past year and a half.

Matured market

I've been a staunch supporter of Facebook games for years. I do believe Facebook is an extremely valuable platform for acquisition, and that it has made a fine social gaming network. I've had a lot of fun playing social games and watching their evolution. I just don't believe that it makes for a sustainable business anymore.

The level of polish and depth required to make a solid game in this current era of Facebook games requires five to six months of a full team. It is too expensive and takes too long to make a high quality Facebook game that compares with the top games now. It costs too much to acquire users. Games peak and start to decline within a few months.

Facebook is a viable strategy, but it shouldn't be any company's entire strategy. It is far too volatile and risky at this point.

I have some reasons why I believe that iOS is currently a better bet, but I'll leave that for another post.

This is an edited version of an opinion piece that originally appeared on Tami's website.


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